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FAA workshop fails to provide adequate forum, residents say

More than a 125 people attended Wednesday’s Federal Aviation Administration workshop in Riverhead to express complaints over the constant buzz of helicopters flying across the North Fork. But the format of the hearing left many feeling as if the FAA was failing to take their complaints seriously.

The workshop format did not allow for people to vocally express their concerns. Instead, people had the opportunity to submit written statements. And the critics said the FAA did not send any administrators, but rather employees who reported back.

“Clearly these people are not decision-makers, they’re just talkers, and we’re stuck in a difficult situation having this route,” said Teresa McCaskie, a member of the Southold Town’s helicopter advisory committee.

Ten stations related to the North Shore Helicopter Route were set up throughout the cafeteria of Riverhead Middle School, with 15 FAA employees scattered at each station to answer questions. After reviewing each station, the public was asked to submit a written statement with concerns.

The Riverhead meeting was the second of three FAA public workshops.

Jim Underwood, member of the Southold Helicopter Noise Steering Committee, said: “This is just an educational seminar for them to tell us what we already know. This not the path to a solution.”

The workshop was result of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which included an amendment requiring the FAA to reconsider the North Shore route, while considering the noise impacts on affected communities, improving altitude enforcement and considering alternative routes.

In October, President Trump signed the bill that included the amendment proposed by Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) to require the FAA to hold public hearings on the issue.

Mr. Zeldin issued a statement after the workshop was announced and said he would continue to push for a public comment session.

“As the details of the FAA’s public comment process come together, I will continue to hold their feet to the fire to ensure that every last voice is heard,” he said Nov. 5. “The law requires a public hearing and public comment session. A workshop idea can very well complement a public hearing, but there’s no way it can or will be in lieu of a public hearing to receive oral testimony. That’s not an option by law, by me, and for many others.”

Jim Peters, a spokesperson for the FAA Eastern Region, said all three meetings were structured the same way. He believes the public workshop format actually gives more people the opportunity to address their concerns as opposed to a traditional meeting.

“We believe this was the best opportunity to talk with people who are interested in finding out how things are going,” he said. “We broke it down to three different areas across Long Island, as it reflects on the North Shore route.”

Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent, Town Board Liaison to the Helicopter Noise Task Force, said the workshop forum was not appropriate to address “the rule,” which requires civil helicopter pilots operating under visual flight rules to use the North Shore route.

“It shows that they really don’t care what the people say about the route,” she said. “Honestly, it’s a dog-and-pony show.”

John Cullen of Northville, a prior member of the Northville Beach Civic Association, said he’s been dealing with the helicopter issue for over 10 years. The solution, he said, is an all-water route avoiding the North Fork.

“My home is ground zero for helicopters coming from the city,” he said. “ It’s all about money, it’s all about time. If they took the round trip around Orient Point, not over Jamesport and Laurel, they’d be seven minutes longer, but they’d be giving us relief.”

Amy Chandler, who lives on Bridge Lane in Mattituck, said the amount of distress the helicopters have caused her is “overwhelming.”

“The house I live in is like paradise, but there’s nothing I can do to escape this,” she said. “There’s been many times where I’ve been reduced to tears. I’ve been outside and you can’t hear the person next to you talking. The seaplanes, sometimes, are so low you think they’re going to land in the field behind my house.”

All members of the Southold helicopter noise steering committee and the town’s helicopter advisory committee attended the meeting.

On Nov. 5, Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Ms. Kent encouraged community members to attend the meeting and tell the FAA how helicopter noise has impacted them.

“The mandated North Shore route has been detrimental to the quality of life in many areas of our town,” Ms. Kent said in the statement. “There are residences that often have as many as 50 helicopters flying over their home in a day. We are advocating for an all-water route over the Atlantic Ocean.”

The current rule for the North Shore Helicopter Route, Mr. Peters said, ends Aug. 8, 2019. At that point, it can be modified or abolished based on community response, though nothing yet is set in stone.

“All options are on the table,” he said. “If they’re willing to send us comments, the more comments we have, the more information we have to draw from to make a decision on the North Shore Route.”

Residents are encouraged to submit their concerns to the FAA until Jan. 2, 2019.

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Photo caption: Various stations were set up at the meeting in Riverhead. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)